Monday 13 September 2021

On demand: "Nayattu/The Hunt"

The source of much discussion - and some consternation - among my Indian colleagues, the Malayalam director Martin Prakkat's police procedural Nayattu pitches us up in the company of characters who are, to a man, rotten in some way. We're already some distance from the norms of the Hindi mainstream, with its hero cops winkingly bending the rules for the delight of a complicit audience; Prakkat instead draws us into the ethically challenging territory previously occupied by those 1970s American films adapted from the work of author Joseph Wambaugh (The Choirboys, The New Centurions, The Onion Field). The risk Prakkat and screenwriter Shahi Kabir (a sometime cop himself) are taking is that their film will be dismissed as problematic or politically incorrect: it does depend on the viewer engaging with characters who'd be setting a very bad example even before the inciting incident that incites a riot, in this case. What's interesting from a dramatic perspective is that those characters have long conceded the high ground. The goons and thugs Prakkat's police haul into the station recognise that these officers have no greater moral authority than they do - they're just goons and thugs with a uniform, that's all. They cast their votes as expected in the local election that intensifies an already fraught backdrop, but their hypocrisy and corruptibility pose problems for those parties who claim to represent law and order. Prakkat's main offenders are a trio - a barrelling sergeant (Joju George), his driver (Kunchacko Boban) and a female underling (Nimisha Sajayan) - who round off a night of drunken revels by (accidentally) doing for a motorcyclist with ties to the local reformist party. The situation's quickly a mess, and for the ensuing two hours, we watch these lawmakers-turned-liabilities do their best to slither and scuttle out of it, knowing even those who get away will have to do so with mud and blood on their hands. Viewers expecting a comfortable night's viewing should heed the lyrics of the song playing at the wedding party that precedes the collision, with their polite intimation of carnage to come: "May I chop you into pieces?"

For a while, Nayattu is pretty choppy itself: there's a lot going on, and we're not initially briefed as to which acts of subterfuge are relevant to the plot. (Kabir and Prakkat are setting a scene, and the scene is a swamp.) Yet the movie straightens itself out once the cops flee in their own patrol vehicle, hoping to evade repercussions, yet sparking a manhunt of the kind they themselves once conducted. Thereafter, the question is the extent to which we want to see these characters getting away with it (or, alternatively, the extent to which we want to see them reeled in and prosecuted). Kabir throws in just one small dash of mitigating sentiment: the sergeant is a father whose flight ensures he misses his beloved daughter's dance competition. My gut feeling, however, is that Prakkat has been studying not just those Seventies law-and-order movies - films permitted to be notably more shaded than most 21st century cinema seems to be - but also those recent highpoints of cable TV, shows which have blurred the line separating hero from villain, and which hope sheer narrative momentum will yank us through. The director has capable character actors on his side: inherently ambivalent souls, informed by a recognition of the characters' culpability, and how far they've drifted from the basics of their job descriptions. Prakkat also works up a strain of visual poetry that held me. Much of the first half, up to and including the fateful accident, unfolds after dark, when it's even harder to tell good men from bad; but as our fugitives head for the hills, the screen begins to fill with that casually spectacular scenery for which the Malayalam cinema has become renowned, and we get our first real taste of fresh air. The high ground is regained, after a fashion. (Viewers of a certain vintage may be reminded of Bogey in High Sierra.) Maybe it's an easier watch at some distance - if you can look upon Nayattu's main players as merely characters or archetypes, rather than representative of the Indian police force. Yet even non-Asian viewers may emerge needing a long, hot, cleansing shower, and perhaps then to stick on an episode of Dragnet, the better to reset a spinning moral compass. No denying this, though: right through to its knotty finale, the film's switchbacks and cover-ups are supremely well-handled, and it's an admirably chancy project for someone to have undertaken, even within an industry as flourishing and confident as this. My fear is that Prakkat is fated to receive either ultra-attentive or distinctly indifferent policing whenever the time comes to embark on his next night shoot.

Nayattu is now streaming via Netflix.

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